New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"The Wandering Jew"
Long Wharf Theater, New Haven, CT

The Wandering Jew! Is he good news or bad news for the Jews? His legend goes well back in time, coming into its own in the 17th century and persisting to this day. Mention of The Wandering Jew first appeared in a 1602 pamphlet in Leyden and quickly spread throughout Germany and France. Its popularity fed the religious foment at the time, and was seized upon as proof that some one had actually witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus.

But, more importantly, in our view, it gave credence to widespread anti-Semitism. This Wandering Jew, as punishment, was condemned to wander the earth forever because he had mocked Christ. The legend says that Jesus, on his way to Golgotha, stops to rest on the doorstep of a little Jewish cobbler. The cobbler, standing under his lintel, forces Jesus to move on. At that, Jesus says, more or less, “I will move on, but you will wait until I come again.” Thus Ahasuerus, the cobbler, the bad man, is condemned to endless, painful wandering.

But is this legend entirely anti-Semitic? On the one hand, it shows the cobbler—and all Jews—in a bad light, from the Christian viewpoint. On another level, it serves as a proper symbol for the Jews themselves---a people which wanders the face of the earth, is cruelly, unfairly treated in many times and places, but survives and moves from strength to strength.

The legend surfaces again and again in literary form, most recently in a powerful award-winning play called “Underneath the Lintel,” now at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

The extraordinary Mark Nelson manages to hold his audience in thrall for a 90-minute non-stop one-man performance. Fortunately for him, he has the right material with which to work. Playwright Glen Berger takes us on a wild ride through time and space. It all begins with an overdue library book—113 years overdue, as it turns out. One is reminded of “Seinfeld,” the TV segment in which a tough sleuth tracks down offenders and demands fines for overdue books. But Berger carries his little hero into realms of history, geography, philosophy, religion. Initially, “Lintel” is every bit as hilarious a romp as its TV counterpart, but soon moves beyond television’s limited scope, becoming both a mystery and a spiritual quest. Ultimately it is a search for God and for one’s place in the universe.

Nelson is first introduced as a fuddy-duddy little librarian preoccupied with trivia. Is there room for his lunch in the library’s communal ice box? But he soon moves on. He has rented a shabby space, posted notices, and, surrounded by what appears to be clutter, tells his story to the assembled guests.

The Librarian, in his petty bureaucratic style, is determined to find the borrower of the overdue book (a Baedeker guidebook). But he gradually begins to suspect that the offender is a mythic figure, some one who reaches far back in time. Each piece of evidence points to the next, sucking The Librarian ever more deeply into the search. He becomes so obsessed in this quest that he travels the world—of course losing his job along the way—but he grows steadily in stature. Long before The Librarian himself suspects the man’s identity, we become aware of whom he is.

Nelson and Berger are partners in crime, working well under the sure hand of director Eric Ting and all three creating a hilarious and compelling piece. The talented Ting also uses slide projection to expand the play’s vision. This is indeed a piece which sets the intellectual juices flowing and keeps the viewer hooked from start to finish. And it is one more version of a fascinating, frightening legend.

-- Irene Backalenick
May 19, 2006

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